Sarah Monette and I were nominated for the Campbell Award at the same time, which is why one day we ended up having a sack race down the hall of one of the better hotels in Madison, Wisconsin. Oh, don’t look at me like that. It made perfect sense at the time. And we tied, which I think means we are equally fabulous. Certainly Sarah’s writing is fabulous; her trilogy of fantasy novels, which began with Melusine, went through The Virtu and now concludes with The Mirador, has been getting praise like “extraordinary,” “wonderful” and “fantastic,” with “virtuoso narratives of theatrical, political and magical intrigues.” Which are pretty nice reviews to get.
In addition to writing virtuoso fantasy, Sarah can also break it down on the academic tip: she’s got a PhD in English Literature, and some of that analytic nature comes through in her contribution to A Month of Writers, in which she looks at sex and gender in science fiction, and the importance of defining one’s terms.
SARAH MONETTE: Groundwork for discussions of sexual politics
This past weekend at Penguicon 5.0, I was on a panel called “Limited Female Roles In Fantasy, Comics, and SF” with Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, The Ferret, and M. Keaton. It was a good panel–don’t get me wrong about that–but I felt, and I think perhaps other panelists did, too, a certain amount of frustration in trying to define what it was we were talking about.
I know why this is. It’s because sexual politics is incredibly complicated and full of nebulous and subjective ideas. And because in trying to talk about sexual roles we are inevitably stuck in the position of fish trying to talk about water. It’s hard to step back from something so immersive, hard to define things that we’ve been shaped by since we were born.
I’ve had this experience before, at a variety of cons (and, yes, that does include WisCon), and it occurred to me this morning that maybe it would be worthwhile to try to lay out some of the fundamentals in a blog post, just to get all this definitional nonsense in one place.
“Sex” vs. “Gender”
Sex is biology. Gender is culture.
But wait! It’s not that simple. (Of course it isn’t that simple. Nothing about sexual politics is simple.)
“Sex” is talking about the equipment a person is born with. Male. Female.
Sex isn’t a binary any more than gender is, although American culture traditionally wants to make it a binary goddammit, thus causing all sorts of problems for those who happen to be born in-between.
But wait! It isn’t even that simple.
Transsexual people, people who choose to go through SRS, are making choices on the level of sex, not gender. Biology is not destiny; sex is neither binary nor immutable.
“Essentialism” in the context of sexual politics refers to the idea that there is some essential, irreducible difference between men and women. As will be obvious from the foregoing, I consider this a deeply problematic stance.
So if “sex” is biology–and all its complications–what is “gender”?
“Gender” is what human societies do with “sex,” how expectations of behavior are influenced by perceptions of biology. Hence the term “gender roles.”
Gender isn’t a binary either. There’s a kind of loose, largely unexamined consensus in middle-class white American society about how men and women behave. (Men are from Mars, remember, and women are from Venus.) And cultural hegemony means that that consensus gets applied widely.
But that doesn’t make the consensus true.
I think it’s misia who pointed out that for an increasing minority of the population, the proper gender tag is “geek” first and “male” or “female” second. I am one of those people myself. There are other sub-cultures in which performance of gender likewise does not map onto the (spurious) binary of sex–hence the terms “butch” and “femme,” just for one example. So when you say men communicate in a particular way, or women are drawn to a particular type of story, my immediate instinct is to make you specify. Which men? Which women? Because generalizations leave a heck of a lot of people out in the cold.
We’re all created equal, but that doesn’t mean we’re created alike.
The Vicious Circle
Women have limited roles in sf (print and media) because:
(a.) That’s what audiences want.
(b.) Women aren’t as interesting as men.
(c.) Artists are products of their culture, and have difficulty thinking outside the box.
(d.) Men are doing it on purpose to keep women oppressed.
(e.) The genre is traditionally male-dominated, and its conventions and tropes leave very little room for telling women’s stories.
(f.) SF is always social allegory, and this trend is an accurate reflection of reality.
All of these answers are wrong.
Some are less wrong than others; b. and d. are both pernicious nonsense; f. is a cop-out, as is a.; c. and e. are partially true, but ignore the work already being done, by both artists and audience members of all genders, to change that.
You’ll also notice that cause and effect are hopelessly jumbled. Individual artistic expressions cannot be separated from the culture at large; artists are influenced by culture, and the culture is in turn influenced by artists. It’s complicated and messy, and it’s impossible, past a certain point, to disentangle the synergistic feedback loop between artists and their culture. Again, generalizations just get you in trouble.
And My Point Is …
If you’re in this kind of discussion, whether on a panel, on the internet, or at the dinner table, do your damnedest to define your terms. (If you’re on a panel, I’d even recommend trying to do this ahead of time.) Try to use words that say what you mean as precisely as possible. Specify what you’re talking about, what you mean by particular overdetermined words. This ensures that everyone’s talking about the same thing and has the happy side-effect of focusing the discussion.
Never trust a generalization you can’t see the back of.
(Original entry, with comments, is here)